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Expedition and Settlement

illustration of Jose de Escandon
Jose de Escandon. From 1748 to 1755, the Spanish expedition leader settled more than 20 towns and villages along the Rio Grande and other areas of New Spain, including the colony of Santander. For his efforts, he has been called the "father of the lower Rio Grande Valley. McAllen Library.
El Norte Provinces, showing location of Santander and Texas in the late eighteenth century. Adapted from map by Jack Jackson, original in State Land Office map collection.
El Norte Provinces, showing location of Santander and Texas in the late eighteenth century. Adapted from map by Jack Jackson, original in State Land Office map collection.

The rancho owners' connection to the town was very important. It was a place to gather supplies, go to church, and attend festivals, weddings, baptisms, and other celebrations.

photo of cattle
Longhorns in south Texas. These famed cattle are thought to have originated from Spanish and Mexican stock that ranged north of the Rio Grande.

Expedition leader Jose de Escandón handpicked the locations for the new colonies, consisting of civilian cattle ranching haciendas (headquarters), villas (towns), and lugars (settlements). The colonists were drawn from neighboring provinces and were exempt from taxes for the first 10 years.

Four villas were founded along the Lower Rio Grande, including Camargo (founded March 5, 1749) Reynosa (founded March 14, 1749), and Revilla (founded October 10, 1750) located on the south side of the Rio Grande, and Laredo on the north side of the river (founded May 15, 1755). In addition, on August 22, 1750, Escandón granted José Vázquez Borrego permission to found Nuestra Señora de los Dolores on the north side of the Rio Grande, which soon became more of a small hacienda rather than a villa. One of the settlements established by the expedition was called Mier, founded on March 6, 1753 near the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Rio Alamo; it is now on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande.

Ranchos along the River

Mier was founded to be the central settlement for a series of ranchos that occupied the land surrounding the town on both sides of the river. Thirty-eight families were brought up from Cerralvo, Nuevo Leon, and joined 19 families already in the area. Each settling family was awarded a porcion, or land grant, that consisted of a narrow strip of land containing from 0.5 to 1 mile of riverfront property and extending about 14 to 15 miles away from the Rio Grande.

Families were also given a small plot in town to build a house, if they wished. Many of the buildings on each porcion were placed near the Rio Grande, just far enough away to avoid flooding, and the rest of the land was used for sheep, goats, and cattle. No fences were used, and the animals could roam as they pleased across porciones. Cattle belonging to different owners would often merge together into large herds, and would only be separated during a rodeo, or roundup. To some extent, this was done as a defensive measure against Indian raids. To protect the cattle, ranchers allowed them to roam free, making them a less obvious target.

Cattle-raising in the Eighteenth Century

Cattle-raising operations in southern Texas and Northern Mexico usually fell into two general categories. The rancho was a small rural estate that was worked by the owner and his family who both farmed and raised livestock. They held only a few thousand acres of land and a few thousand cattle. Their owners were considered part of the "middle class" of Spanish Colonial society. Another form of ranching centered on the big hacienda, a large, rural, self-sufficient estate. Hacienda families were involved in cattle raising, sheep and goat herding, agriculture, or mining—anything that could be produced and sold for a profit. The hacienda could occupy hundreds of thousands of acres and have tens of thousands of cattle. The patrón, or owner, of the hacienda was a member of the upper class, enjoying wealth, prestige, and political influence. His workers, the vaqueros (cowboys), and their families were members of the lower class, the peón, and were usually bound by debt to the patrón. Several true haciendas were in operation in northern Mexico and later in Texas in the nineteenth century, but no haciendas of that scale were ever located along the Rio Grande, only small haciendas or ranchos.

The ranching families maintained a strong connection to the town. It was a place to gather supplies, go to church, and attend festivals, weddings, baptisms, and other celebrations. It was a place where the men could meet with the other ranchers in the community, discuss political and social issues, and plan out the next rodeo.


Photo of the ruins of an early house in Santander located across the Rio Grande river from the settlement of Revilla. Structure now submerged in Falcon reservoir. Photo by Jack Hughes, 1950, TARL archives.
Ruins of an early house in Santander located across the Rio Grande river from the settlement of Revilla. The structure is now submerged in Falcon reservoir. Photo by Jack Hughes, 1950, TARL archives.
photo of the Rio Grande
Cypress trees growing along the Rio Grande in the area of what was once Nuevo Santander. Both sides of the river were colonized by early settlers, each of whom were awarded narrow strips, or porciones, extending to the water's edge. TARL Archives.
Map of ranchos sited between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers during the eighteenth century; adapted from map by Jack Jackson.
Map of ranchos sited between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers during the eighteenth century; adapted from map by Jack Jackson.
photo of Virgin Mary shrine
Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Zapata County. Early ranching families on the northern frontier of New Spain carried strong ties to the Catholic church, which they expressed in the building of local shrines and churches, and maintenance of a variety of religious traditions. TARL Archives.